George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba (South African, 1912-2001)
'Bisho Massacre Funeral' signed and dated 'M PEMBA 92' (lower left) oil on board 79 x 121cm (31 1/8 x 47 5/8in).
Amongst the communities in the Eastern Cape, George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba was synonymous with the art of painting, yet despite his recognition in the particular area, Pemba's art, for many years existed only in the peripheries of the South African art domain. The George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba Retrospective Exhibition, hosted by the South African National Gallery in 1996, was instrumental in altering the unknown, neglected and barely mentioned pioneer painter, serving to bring his work into the wider arena and evaluating his far-reaching contribution and role in the history of South African art.
Under the tuition of the landscape painter, Ethel Smythe, Pemba had access to Smythe's collection of art books which introduced him to the work of Rembrandt, Velásquez and the French impressionists. An interesting combination of late nineteenth century naturalism and non-narrative painterly exploration, inspired by the French modernist painters, found expression in Pemba's work, which continued to manifest in his production into the 1990s. His art was thus devoted to naturalism, narrative and sentimentality. Pemba's extensive oeuvre encompassed portrait painting, landscape and group compositions as well as 'genre works'. While his 'township' genre scenes are the most celebrated for their unpretentious qualities and elaborate honesty, Pemba's artworks are not simply straightforward sociological records, providing an insight into a world characterised by racial discrimination, squalor and abject poverty a world which existed alongside white society but was not often experienced by white people.
Much of Pemba's artworks concerned itself with the urbanisation of African people however when the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, firmly anchoring and reinforcing discriminatory legislation, inevitably the impact of apartheid on the daily lives of the African people began to dominate his artworks.
In 1945 the artist joined the ANC, although he never positioned himself as a political artist, he depicted the joys and sorrows synonymous with township life. Explaining his approach in an interview in 1991, the artist asserted that he painted freely: ''Some times I paint to express pain and sorrow. For example, I painted the train massacres and the life in hostels. But I have no motif. I get inspiration from what I see and sometimes from what I feel. It just happens by accident that I do something expressing political oppression.'' During the 1970s Pemba painted prolifically and his style matured, giving form to his unique creative voice. It was also during this time that Pemba's artwork progressively began to depict poignant responses to the severe upheavals caused by the apartheid legislations.
At a time when South Africa was mourning those killed in the Boipatong Massacre on June 17 1992, the Bisho Massacre added to the bleak political situation extending throughout the country. The massacre took place on the 7 September 1992 in Bisho, then the capital of Ciskei (an independent homeland or Bantustan). Prior to a planned protest march on Bisho, the ANC requested that regime of the military leader, Brigadier Joshua Gqozo, was replaced by an interim administration that would allow for democratic reforms in the Ciskei. This was rejected by president de Klerk on the grounds that the Ciskei did not fall under South Africa's jurisdiction. Led by top ANC officials, including Chris Hani, Cyril Ramaphosa, Steve Tshwete and Ronnie Kassrils, a mass protest march was organised. When the marchers tried to cross Ciskei Defence Force lines from Transkei to enter Bisho, Gqozo's soldiers were instructed to open fire. The ensuing bloodshed resulted in the death of 28 marchers, one soldier, and over 200 activists were injured.
Bisho Massacre Funeral is a vivid depiction of the mass funeral held for the victims on the 18 September 1992. The painting conveys a great deal of energy through Pemba's use of bold and vivid colours, almost implying a sense of hope and faith despite the shocking realities for the mourners. Each character is depicted with dignity demonstrating decorum and grace in the face of a painful and shocking circumstance. Pemba's distinguished draughtsmanship and ability to depict his subjects and situations as ''he finds them''; with candour and simplicity, renders convincing portrayals of the community groups with which he concerned himself. The construction of an inward narrative and strategic pictorial arrangements emphasise the delicacy of human relations which are permeated by a tender and eloquent sentiment. Pemba imparts poise and respectability onto his fellow comrades who were shamefully denied of many basic freedoms - a concern to which he was always drawn, the idea of an authority of just principles and to an art which sought these out. George Pemba's artworks strongly challenge viewers to recognise his existence as his own subject, rather than simply a subject to a colonial and racist imposition.
BIBLIOGRAPHY B. Feinberg & H.Proud (eds), George Milwa Mnyaluza Pemba: Retrospective Exhibition, (Cape Town, 1996), pp. 9-17 & 33-67 S. Hudleston, Against All Odds: George Pemba: His Life and Works, (Johannesburg,1996), pp.63-75